Long Games and Creative Assumptions

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew and I had quite a lengthy discussion on Twitter, which then expanded into a lengthier discussion over Facebook. We thought it was an interesting back-and-forth, and worth sharing our points.

It started out with an unassuming tweet I made:

And a joking response from Andrew:

At the heart of the exchange we were really discussing two things: the validity of my desire to make "a massive" project, and the more interesting topic of our assumptions about games as a narrative form. Additionally tangled in the argument is the fact that as a smaller company, we need to be careful what we devote our resources to; part of Andrew's point is that "long games" are simply less resource-efficient -- which I agree with wholeheartedly, of course. What started as a whim became an interesting discussion.

I went on to argue that long games were a valid choice; Andrew’s main point was that we should question all assumptions about the games we make, especially at the beginning: we shouldn’t go into a design saying “I’m going to make a long game” but rather ask if the game has to be long to accomplish what we want it to accomplish. I think that’s a really important point: though Andrew was being a bit more pointed, we both ultimately believe that as designers, as creators, we should always engage with the decisions we make in an inquisitive, open way. Why did we choose what we did? Can we do better? Are we making assumptions we needn't about what the thing we're making looks like.

We went on to discuss thusly:

Lucas: You made a lot of good points, and I don't disagree with any of them specifically. We should definitely always ask questions like "Does this have to be long?" -- just as, frankly, we should question every single aspect of a design. (The only major difference between other things and length is, as you pointed out, that there seems to be an assumption in (especially AAA) games that it needs to be long to be good.)

That said, there are benefits to longer games (when designed right). Like the comfort blanket of a TV show,* people like the familiar; there's a reason I keep going back to games I've played rather than starting new ones; there's a reason people play WoW for years on end. From a player perspective, I do like long games -- when they're not a waste of my time (that is, when they're well designed). I wouldn't want Mass Effect any shorter, most likely; I was sad when it ended and I couldn't go back to it any more. (And obviously there's a balance between that and stretching it out too long (see our conversation about serial TV shows, also).) So again, I'm not saying a long game is necessary in all or even most cases, but it does have its positive aspects (as long as it's designed right).

Also, there is a time/value perception most people have. I don't want to pay $60 for a 2-hour game; that doesn't seem worth it. For that much entertainment, I can watch a movie for $10. If I'm paying $60, I want 20 hours of gameplay.

Finally, I would say that (in theory) "I want to make a long game" can actually be a perfectly reasonable way to start a creative process -- just as "I want to write a novel" is. The trick is then to design what you're doing to fit your goal (of making a long game) -- design a long game, don't design a game and then make it long. Just as you wouldn't decide to write a novel and then try to make a short story fill a novel's shoes. You design it as a novel. You design it as a long game. And absolutely you should continue to question it -- "maybe what we're designing would be better as a short game". And then you either make it a short game, or you make something else as a long game.

You shouldn't make a game long for the sake of having a long game, that I agree with -- but you can set out to make a good long game.

[*Andrew and I had previously had a conversation about the design of TV shows, how a show that goes on for seasons and seasons and doesn’t have a pre-planned arc cannot have a truly well-thought-out and elegant narrative. That’s not the point; we watch them and enjoy them and say they’re good because we like the idea of the story and gain pleasure from the familiar trappings of the world. In that way, they’re like a comfort blanket.]

Andrew: Valid points, and not to equate my personal design philosophy with "correct" design practice, but I tend to think the question "what form does this take" should follow questions of intent, function and even to a limited extent, content (limited by possibility, not by importance).  To go back to previous discussions we've had on "the importance of putting in the time, of being there day-in, day-out with your squad/party" -- I still don't agree that that is a prerequisite for building relationships with NPCs -- or, really, a prerequisite for anything other than the kind of character exploration we’ve already seen countless times before in games.

Of course, “the tactic of time” certainly helps; it is a place of grounding -- where action/ consequence/experience in a game world and our world can be similar, can meet, and from where new explorations can be launched. That said, those places are often the least interesting to me from an architectural/artistic standpoint; I’m far too keen on seeing what explorations on the “traditional” Fantasy RPG themes would yield if they were launched from a different “camp.”

This is not the case when I view it from a narratological perspective. When I'm looking to tell a story, I do tend to fall into this thinking a lot more. However, I tend to think of that as a personal weakness -- as my inability to think outside the box. I'd like for my "artistic" and "narrative" leanings to be more harmonious given that I don't see storytelling as something outside of art; though, as I said earlier, when I set myself to a narrative task my thinking changes significantly.

To further elaborate on my point about form following function -- I don't adhere to this because I have particular love or affinity toward the modernist techo-fetishistic idea of art being emergent from function, that operation can or should equal aesthetic. Instead, I do this for more decidedly post-modernist reason: by postponing prejudgement of a piece's form, I hope to push against the tyranny of the eye, and the tyranny of the familiar. Indeed, I caught myself writing "what does it look like" instead of "what form does this take" and that is quite perfectly the problem!

I don't want to sound like I just fetishize the "new" either, though I likely couldn't mount a good defense if accused of it. I just feel like preconception is the enemy of the artist -- no, scratch that. That's far too wide-reaching. I feel that preconception is the enemy of THIS artist; it is the enemy of my art. When I take something for granted, I want to be absolutely cognizant of it; I want it to be intentional. I suppose that says something about my (preconscious) thoughts on the relationship of art and intent, though I don’t think those thoughts are yet fully formed. I will have to think more on this…

To respond to your point about Mass Effect, I don't think whether something "is or is not a waste of time” is for you (or anyone) to say, definitively. Of course you like long games that don’t waste your time, but that’s circular logic: you like them because you perceive the added time as a feature because the things added are things you personally enjoy. For someone who only has 2 hours a week to devote to gaming, and who doesn’t like shooters (or, for that matter, doesn’t like squad-building narratives) Mass Effect is a waste of time: “I just want the story,” or “I just want the action.” So yeah, while Mass Effect 3’s “Action, RPG, or Story” modes were a nice touch, they were a small towel to dry a large pond.

Or, consider someone in the industry (like myself) who has 100 great games to play and study, I tend to shy away from the ones that ask the most of their players (mmos, rpgs) these days as the larger commitment tips the balance of time-in vs creative-inspiration-out. That’s the problem of cramming a bunch of stuff in, just to make the world feel full; every time you do, you run the risk of alienating someone. And yet “adding stuff in” is almost universally part of the “making games more accessible” narrative -- which I think IS disrespectful of a player’s time, in that it is reliant upon NOT considering their time as particularly valuable.

Ultimately, I feel like smaller bits of content are fighting a tough uphill battle in a culture still dominated by bigger-is-better thinking. Between “an hour per dollar” value assessments and the Michael Bay sensibilities of mainstream gaming, shorter games need all the championing they can get.

Lucas: Completely agree with your second to last paragraph -- but to turn it around, I think that also means that a long game (assuming good design) can be a valid choice because for some players, it is desirable. You’ve said yourself we shouldn’t be trying to appeal to every player.

Otherwise, all of your points here are perfectly correct. Generally, form should follow function. But it does not by necessity follow that function cannot or even should not follow form, and my original tweet was really just a manifestation of the fact that sometimes inspiration strikes in different ways. "I want to make a long game" should not be met with "you won't be able to make that work well" (which was implied in your response, though I understand it was not your intention), but rather "prove to me it will work well".

What do you think, reader? Do you like long games? Do you think games disrespect player time? Should games appeal to as many people as possible, or does trying to do so make a worse experience for everyone? Leave a comment!